Today with ultra tight airline security such a building couldn’t exist. But back when flying was for the wealthy and the most glamorous form of travel, a building in the middle of Manhattan matched that glamour. The Airlines Terminal made getting to the brand new New York Municipal Airport-La Guardia Field in the borough of Queens easier.
Located at the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 42nd Street, the Airlines Terminal stood on the site of the Hotel Belmont (1906). The Belmont closed its doors in 1930. Torn down in 1931, a beer garden occupied the site for a short time in 1933. Other than that for most of the decade the site remained vacant.
Plans for the Airlines Terminal building at 80 East 42nd Street became public in September of 1939. Architect John B. Peterkin’s (1886 – 1969) design for the five-story building is best described as modern classical. The terminal consolidated the reservations, ticketing and baggage handling for the five major American airlines (American, Eastern, TWA, United and PamAm). Other facilities planned for Airlines Terminal were a restaurant, stores on the ground level and a 600 seat newsreel theatre.
Construction of the terminal began in the fall of 1939, with May, 1940 scheduled for the opening. The New York Herald-Tribune reported on September 12, 1939:
The building will be of limestone on all street frontages and will incorporate many new devices, including automatic elevators for the airline buses, inclosed and separate from the rest of the building. The building will have mechanical ventilation throughout. Two street levels, one on Forty-second Street and the other on Forty-first Street, will permit the terminal to be on the grade floor on Forty-first Street, where the buses will take passengers to and from the flying fields. The terminal will be reached by two large escalators from the entrance on Forty-second Street.
The Airlines Terminal steel frame construction was noteworthy for its use of welding instead of riveting. Shortly before it went up, the Herald-Tribune reported on January 19, 1940:
The steel frame of the new Airlines Terminal to be erected on the site of the old Belmont Hotel at Park Avenue and Forty-second Street will be welded. John B. Peterkin, architect announced yesterday. No riveting will be used, either in the shop or on the site, to assemble the frame. The structure, which will rise five stories about the street level and extend four stories below, will require about 1,300 tons of welded steel. If riveting had been adopted, Mr. Peterkin said, 150 additional tons of steel would have been required. Work will be started in a few days.
In early 1940, while still under construction, the Airlines Terminal size was enlarged. The March 3, 1940 New York Times reported:
The space to be occupied as a terminal has been doubled under a new arrangement without increasing the size of the building. Originally, the terminal itself was to be only on the street level on Forty-first Street and reached by an escalator from Forty-second Street. Now a lower floor will be taken by the terminal, giving it one floor for incoming passengers an another for outgoing. The airlines decided to enlarge their ticket and reservations facilities because of the great increase in flying by the American public and because of the success of the trans-oceanic clippers. When the terminal first was conceived in the early part of 1938 it was believed that a single floor of facilities would take care of all the requirements for many years. Developments since then have proved otherwise.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia laid the Airlines Terminal cornerstone on April 22, 1940. But the enlargement of the building delayed it’s opening. The New York Times reported the following day that the new planned opening would be in September. Then September came and went. A gala dedication dinner announced for December 17th got pushed back into the new year. On December 28, 1940 a jurisdictional dispute between two unions over telephone wiring threatened to further delay the opening. Members of the United Telephone Organization went on strike, halting work on the installation of telephones and switchboards. Due to the hard work of mediators the strike came to a quick end on December 30th. Finally on January 8, 1941 the gala dedication dinner was held, even though the terminal still needed its finishing touches completed. Speakers at the dinner included Mayor La Guardia and Juan Trippe, founder of Pam American Airways.
Almost three weeks following the gala dinner at 12:01 A.M., January 26, 1941 the doors opened for business. Twelve hours later Mayor La Guardia made an official visit to the terminal. Accompanied by his two children and a friend the mayor inspected the air line buses and the huge elevators that lifted them to the second floor. According to the New York Hearld-Tribune, January 27, 1941:
“The mayor stopped to admire the mural in the rotunda. Made of cast aluminum it showed an eagle in flight beside a man. The symbolism of the mural as explained to the mayor is the eagle must have wings to fly, but man soars through his intellect. What Mayor La Guardia saw during his visit evidently pleased him, for he told John B. Peterkin, terminal architect: ‘You’ve done a fine job.'”
The symmetrical facade, devoid of almost all decoration, stood in modern contrast to the Beaux-Arts architecture of Grand Central Terminal directly opposite on 42nd Street. Otto Bach created the polychromatic stainless steel mural of the world set above the concave main entrance. This provided not only a grand gateway to the building itself but also symbolically to the airport and the world beyond.
Equally important in the exterior design was Rene Chambellan’s (1893-1955) decorative carvings and eagles sculpture and light fixture. The out stretched wings of the eagles supported the lantern and the 80 foot flag pole made of Oregon pine. The lantern originally flashed alternating green and amber light through filters, illuminating and dimming every 10 seconds.
Very few images of the interior exist of the Airlines Terminal. Because of the lack of photographs the best description of the inside of the building comes from the New York Times – January 5, 1941:
New Airlines Depot
Gay Decorations and Modern Mechanisms Give It an Arabian Nights Atmosphere
Walls of Gold. At the head of the escalator the traveler or sightseer will gaze south through a great oval salon. The ceiling is an elongated dome, sky blue and richly beautiful. One-eighth of an acre of stainless steel colored with pure gold makes up the first thirty perpendicular feet of wall all around the rotunda below the azure dome. Giant figures of a symbolic man and bird in flight (in aluminum) dominate the upper wall ends. Ticket offices of the various airlines occupy wall spaces below the upper golden sidewall.
The circular information booth is located in the center of the rotunda floor. But in this one the four-faced clock is mounted at the intersection of right-angled wings of light-transmitting plastic eleven feet high. They are the largest sheets of this magic material ever produced. Edges of the wings are feathered to emit the inner light.
The Airlines Terminal was an immediate success. Service to Newark Airport began shortly after its opening. After the end of the Second World War traveling by air started to gain in popularity. By the end of 1946 the terminal was serving between 11,000 and 12,000 people each day. As a result a small adjunct office opened on 42nd Street under the Park Avenue viaduct in Pershing Square. Approximately 235 12 passenger buses were leaving from the 41st Street ramps at the back of the terminal, with another 60 leaving from the smaller Pershing Square station per day. Then to make matters worse New York International Airport (better known as Idlewild and since 1963, JFK) in Queens opened in 1948.
The increase of passengers of course resulted in an equal increase of airport buses on midtown streets. To reach the two Queens airports buses leaving the terminal had to travel a few blocks southeast to get into the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. If the traffic to Queens was bad, getting to Newark Airport was even worse. New Jersey bound buses would drive on congested crosstown streets before entering the Lincoln Tunnel. Unfortunately the solution to the problem would eventually doom the 42nd Street building.
In July, 1951 an announcement came that a new Airlines Terminal at First Avenue between 37th and 38th streets would open by 1953. The new location was directly across 37th Street from the entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. When the new terminal opened on November 30, 1953 all bus service transferred to the new east side facility. Even buses to Newark would leave from the East Side, at least temporarily. As a result the original Airlines Terminal on 42nd Street became to a reservation service center only.
Before the east side terminal even opened to the public construction started on the West Side Airlines Terminal. The new facility would serve Newark Airport exclusively. At 42nd Street and Tenth Avenue, the new terminal had easy access to the Lincoln Tunnel. With the opening of the terminal on September 15, 1955, travel time to Newark reduced to only 21 minutes.
Comparing the two new terminals to the original one shows how much changed in less than 15 years. By the mid-1950’s air travel had become more commonplace than it was before the Second World War. While still thrilling, it lost some of its glamour and the architecture of the new terminals reflected that change. Gone were the symbolic murals and decorative metal work. Utilitarian is the best adjective to describe the interior decoration of the new facilities.
As a result of the two new terminals, the name of the original needed to change. In 1954 the Airlines Terminal on 42nd Street became the Airlines Building.
And there were other changes too. Because of loss of patronage at newsreel theatres in general, the Airlines Terminal theatre became a first run art house for British and foreign films in May, 1949. But the change in programming was not enough to save it from closing. By October, 1955 the space once occupied by the theatre was converted into a Horn & Hardart’s Automat.
Beginning in the early 1970’s the Airlines Building, and the city itself went into decline. Then the airlines moved out. Manhattan Air Terminal, Inc., told The New York Times:
That a more spacious and modern terminal would open at 8:00 A.M. tomorrow (6/12/72) in the Pershing Square Building, just across Park Avenue from the old terminal, at 100 East 42nd Street. The company said it had taken a 20-year lease on the mezzanine of the building, which has direct access to the IRT subway.
In the photo above, the Airlines Building’s elegance shines through the grime, but its days were numbered. As is the case with so much Manhattan real estate the land value is far greater than the value of the building. And in a building so small, the rental income could not possibly cover its operating costs and taxes. Then the inevitable news came on August 2, 1978 (as reported in the New York Times):
The Airlines Terminal Building, once a thriving ticket and terminal headquarters for leading world airlines at 80 East 42nd Street, will be demolished beginning later this week, Philip Morris Inc. announced yesterday.
In its place the company, which manufactures cigarettes, beer and other products, is planning to build an office building of approximately 25 stories that will serve as an addition to its corporate headquarters, which are in an adjacent building.
Robert L. Ryan, a spokesman for the company, said that a demolition permit had been obtained and that safety scaffolding would be erected in the next few days, with demolition work on the three story Art Deco building expected to last two to three months.
The building has an imposing exterior, but it is not considered one of the better examples of the Art Deco style of architecture. Kent Barwick, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said: “It is an interesting building, but certainly not among the most important architectural treasures of this city.”
Although gone from New York for nearly 40 years a bit of the Airlines Terminal survives. 350 miles south of Manhattan in Richmond, Virginia the eagles that once looked over 42nd street, stand in front the former Best Products headquarters building on Parham Road. So if you find yourself in Richmond and you want to see a bit of Art Deco New York check them out.
Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)
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